Trump and Chinese Exclusion: Contemporary Parallels with Legislative Debates over the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

50 Pages Posted: 30 May 2017 Last revised: 6 Dec 2017

See all articles by Stuart Chinn

Stuart Chinn

University of Oregon School of Law

Date Written: May 27, 2017


Donald Trump’s presidential victory in November has prompted much public commentary about American political dynamics, and about the future of American democracy. Given these inquiries, this paper is timely in aiming to reexamine, through a comparative-historical lens, one of the most prominent parts of Trump’s campaign and one of the biggest points of concern among his critics: Trump’s campaign rhetoric on immigration. Trump’s own flirtation with racist themes is not hard to see in some of his most notable campaign comments regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslim immigrants. And given that these comments were also directed at immigrant constituencies, equally clear is Trump’s flirtation with particularly nativistic forms of racial exclusion during his presidential campaign.

My aspiration in this paper is to shed some light on the Trump presidential victory and contemporary politics by examining these recent events in light of another significant moment in American immigration history: the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. By interrogating this crucial episode of nativist-influenced exclusion in the nineteenth century, I hope to illuminate certain dynamics that continue to resonate in and influence present-day politics.

In Part II of this paper, I offer some preliminary comments on the significance of the legislative debates over Chinese Exclusion in the late nineteenth century, and set forth the two primary claims of this paper: first, that a crucial component of American political community has historically resided within cultural bonds. Second, precisely because cultural bonds have been so significant in defining American political community, they have helped give rise to the presence of statuses in our polity marked by relative inclusion and exclusion. Stated otherwise, we commonly find within historical debates and contemporary debates a conceptualization of minority groups, by political actors, where exclusionary and inclusionary themes are inescapable intertwined. In Part III, I will demonstrate the validity of these two claims in the context of the legislative debates over Chinese Exclusion. Finally, in Part IV, I return to the contemporary context and demonstrate the relevance of my claims within Trump’s campaign rhetoric prior to the 2016 election. Within his rhetoric, we see both a reliance upon culture in constituting American political community, and the articulation of statuses that are characterized by the relative inclusion and relative exclusion of certain minority groups.

I will conclude with some discussion on how we might evaluate cultural claims, and claims about relative inclusion/exclusion. It is undoubtedly tempting to view both types of argument, especially when paired with exclusionary political goals, as at best a mere smokescreen for racism. Yet, while I think there may indeed by a strong overlap between cultural claims, relative inclusion/exclusion claims, and racist themes, I maintain that the first two are conceptually distinct from the third. Furthermore, for those inclined toward more inclusionary political goals, the first two types of argument should be viewed as attractive tools that can provide intriguing opportunities for co-option by proponents of more inclusionary views — options that are simply not available with respect to more categorically racist forms of argument.

Keywords: Immigration, Chinese Exclusion, Trump, Racism, Culture

Suggested Citation

Chinn, Stuart, Trump and Chinese Exclusion: Contemporary Parallels with Legislative Debates over the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (May 27, 2017). 84 Tennessee Law Review 681 (2017), Available at SSRN:

Stuart Chinn (Contact Author)

University of Oregon School of Law ( email )

1515 Agate Street
Eugene, OR Oregon 97403
United States

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